David Emmett's blog
When you arrive to pick up your credentials at a motorcycle racing event, they make you sign a form. On that form, you are informed that motorsports are dangerous in whatever capacity you attend, and you do so at your own risk. If you don't sign the form, you don't get your passes, that's how seriously they take this.
For this is something that race fans tend to forget: motorcycle racing really is dangerous. For years now we've been spoiled, with riders invariably getting up and walking away, or at worst being flown out to the nearest hospital in a medivac helicopter, making their return with steel pins holding broken bones together, after missing just a handful of races. Only occasionally does it end badly, such as when Craig Jones was killed in a World Supersport race at Brands Hatch in 2008, or when Daijiro Katoh suffered fatal injuries during the 2003 Japanese MotoGP round at Suzuka.
But even those accidents were a sign of how things have changed. In the early years of Grand Prix racing, all the way through to the mid-1970s, Grand Prix racing would lose a handful of riders every season. Protective gear has improved vastly over the years, and the track especially have seen huge changes, with street circuits disappearing, hard obstacles being removed and walls being pushed back as far as possible, and then covered in air fence for good measure.
Mugello truly is a spectacular setting for motorcycle racing. Truth be told, Mugello is a spectacular setting for any kind of activity, from a leisurely picnic to a high-speed chase through the scenery. But it really is an amazing place for a motorcycle race. The track sits wedged in a valley between a couple of hills, and this generates a huge amount of elevation changes as it snakes its way up and around the valley. To try and give you an impression of the differences in elevation, I took a wander around the track on Thursday evening, and took a few photos to try to capture the circuit from the asphalt, rather than from trackside. You can follow the way around the circuit with this track map, or on Google maps.
The response to the tale of woe that my visit to Le Mans to cover the Grand Prix has become has been both touching and overwhelming. Offers of help have coming flooding in from all over the world, for which I am truly grateful. The only problem with having an international audience is that despite the many kind offers of help, few of them have come from anywhere close enough to be of immediate assistance.
Motorcycles have been my life now for many years. I grew up watching my uncle race; tracing the logos of the great British marques onto my school bag along with the rest of my peers; and gawping in awe and wonder at the first of the new generation of race-inspired street bikes that appeared at the end of the 1970s, and evolved to become the stunning machines which now grace our highways. I truly love motorcycles, with a passion.
Except when they break down. Then, understandably, the ardor cools and frustration rears its ugly head, as hours and days of useful time starts to disappear down a drain of phone calls to family, friends, colleagues, insurance companies and breakdown services, in an attempt to salvage what you can of a weekend.
Readers of MotoMatters.com may have noticed a distinct and sudden dearth of updates on rider debriefs and news on the website, from Saturday evening onwards. What would be the point, you may have asked yourselves, of going all the way to Le Mans, and then not bothering to use that opportunity wisely? The explanation for that mystery is simple: my trusty steed, the BMW R1150GS that has served me so faithfully, decided to quit on me. That breakdown quickly turned into something of a disaster.
Today we take you on a lap of the circuit, as seen from trackside. On Thursday, little moves on the track, and so we are free to go round the circuit, if we so wish. Most people go round on the scooter, many riders go round on a bicycle, mixing physical training with mental training. I like to circulate on foot, to get a sense of the elevation changes around the track. Here's my lap of Le Mans:
I never fail to get a thrill of excitement when I enter the paddock on race day, and this morning was no exception. I'm not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination, but despite having to get up at 5:30am to get in on time, I still got that electric tingle as we arrived at the gate. Here's a few of my (poorly shot) photos to give you an idea of why.
Whenever groups of people band together, they inevitably start to take on each others habits, mannerisms and perhaps most especially, appearance. The MotoGP paddock is no different, and the dress adopted by its members means they all bear a remarkable resemblance to one another. The fact that many of the people in the paddock are restricted to wearing team uniforms merely underlines the uniformity. So here's your guide to the latest in MotoGP paddock chic:
Your model for today is Tom Tremayne, Bridgestone's extremely helpful and knowledgeable press officer. Let's walk through the key items of Tom's dress:
With MotoGP reconvened at Jerez, after being forced to skip Motegi due to volcanic ash grounding flights in Europe, the paddock in Southern Spain is filling up once again. Hospitality units are up, and team members forced to skip Qatar to cut spending are all back in the paddock, giving the place a more homely feel. "It feels like the first day back at school," MotoGP technical guru Neil Spalding said, upon entering the media center this morning. "Qatar just isn't the same."
That is in part because Qatar is an overseas round, where the teams are housed in rows of temporary huts, all identical and impossible to distinguish one from another. At Jerez, the hospitality units are back, adding color and visual interest to the paddock, and creating an easily navigable route for finding your way about. Most of all, though, is the return to a normal schedule, with activity taking place during daylight hours, rather than starting as the sun goes down and the day ending as the sun returns again.
Once practice got underway for this weekend's World Superbike round at Assen, I received an urgent email from the family of one rider in the MotoGP paddock asking me where the sudden burst of speed was coming from. All of a sudden, the World Superbike men were going faster than the MotoGP riders, and Ben Spies' pole record from 2009 was not so much being shattered, as being stomped on, atomized and then thrown away like a cheap plaything.
Of course, this had little do to with any slowness on the part of Ben Spies. Instead, a key change in the circuit layout has transformed the back section of the track, and even restored some of its former glory. The entry to the Ruskenhoek, at the end of the Veenslang (the back straight), was bowdlerized around 4 years ago, as part of the changes which removed Assen's glorious North Loop, and replaced it with the crochet hook section which sits there instead. It became a sharp, almost 90 degree right hander, slowing riders right down for the long left of the Ruskenhoek, at the end of which was another right, the Stekkenwal.
Entering the paddock at any World Championship event still sends a thrill of excitement through me every time I do it, though as a fellow - and far more experienced - journalist pointed out to me, perhaps that's because I've only been doing this for a couple of years. Yet the difference between entering the World Superbike paddock and the MotoGP paddock is huge, despite the fact that their core activity is absolutely identical: allowing brave young men (and in the case of the World Supersport paddock, one brave young woman) to go as fast as possible on two wheels.
There are the obvious differences, of course. The World Superbike paddock is a much friendlier, more relaxed place. Riders, team members and fans mingle freely - or as freely as the constraints of time and hard work required of the riders and teams allow. The fans are welcomed into the paddock, as paddock passes are on sale to the public, rather than only available through specialized resellers as part of VIP packages. The post-qualifying and post-race press conference takes place in the public WSBK tent, in the middle of the paddock, in front of a live crowd, rather than in the press room in the media center. And there are still plenty of teams who race out of the back of a van - albeit a large one - instead of a giant race truck.
By the time you read this, I will probably be in transit, flying back home from Qatar, and trying to shift my sleep schedule back to some semblance of normality. Most of all, I will be looking back on an amazing weekend spent in Qatar, thanks to the generosity of the Fiat Yamaha team, and most particularly, their sponsor Fiat. So as a way of expressing my gratitude to them, here's a collection of photos of the Fiat Yamaha Team in action. You as a reader won't be disappointed, though, as all - with the exception of the out-of-focus last shot - come from the lens of Scott Jones, MotoMatters.com friend, photographer, and stellar talent. All of the photos that have appeared on MotoMatters.com from Qatar are available for purchase as large prints from Scott at Turn2Photography.com. You should also check his personal photography blog at scottjones.net.
One of the best places in the world to watch a MotoGP race - apart from the stands, among the fans - is in the press room. Journalism is supposed to be a lofty profession, whose practitioners raise themselves above the level of the subjective fans, and regard the world with a cool, clear, objective eye. To be fair, for most of the weekend, that's exactly what the journalists attempt to do. But once the lights go out and the racing starts, any pretense of objectivity goes right out of the window, and the journos become ordinary fans once again.
The comment that I have probably received most since I started this blog was "I want your job!" And frankly, I have to pinch myself to see if this is still all really happening, so it is a sentiment I can completely understand. Being allowed to work in the MotoGP paddock and up in the press room feels like a genuine privilege, and being surrounded with people who share the same passion is truly remarkable.
I often wonder at how this all came about. Just over four years ago, I posted a season preview on the Adventure Rider motorcycle forum, and now, I learned today, I am the first journalist from an online publication ever to receive a permanent pass from Dorna. In the intervening years I have worked hard both to keep learning as much as I can about racing, and communicate my passion for the sport to a wider audience. It has cost me blood, sweat, tears, and more money than I like to think about, but all these would have been to no avail if it wasn't for one factor: The Internet.
The night race at Qatar is spectacular alright, but it certainly has its downsides. For example, it's ten to four in the morning as I type this, and I've been back at the hotel for about 15 minutes. I'll go to sleep in an hour or so, then be up at some weird time in the afternoon.
Ah, I hear you say, surely the practice was finished by 11:30pm, what took you so long? Well, the journalists start work when the riders finish, and we start the chase around the paddock for interviews with riders, a kind of mad scramble to listen to what riders have to say about the races. Qatar being both a night race and a flyaway, it's doubly bad. For the debrief with Jorge Lorenzo, for example, we were crammed between a fence and the prefab hut which the teams are using as their headquarters at Qatar:
Whenever I go to a MotoGP race, it seems that something weird always happens. Not just the kind of weird stuff that happens when you go on vacation - that happens often enough - but stuff that catches you off guard and leaves baffled and bewildered.
So it was this morning. After a very long night finishing up my season preview and an account of the Fiat On The Web team's adventures - three quarters of which I lost, due to my own stupidity, and had to retype - I awoke to an eerie silence. In a place where daytime temps can reach 40 degrees, even this early in the year, that silence means trouble, because it replaces the hiss of the air conditioning unit, the only thing that lies between you and a lot of sweating, puffing, and fanning yourself while you attempt not to boil.
A quick flick of the light switch proved that it wasn't the airco that was the problem, but that the electricity was out entirely. Still, there was a faint wireless signal and my laptop had plenty of battery left, so I finished up some work and decided to head to the circuit. The late night meant I had overslept, and the Fiat On The Web team had gone on their road trip without me - a trip Alex later reported was fun, but hot - so I headed downstairs to the car hire desk in the hotel.